Muni Operator Wages Key to Avoiding Future Meltdowns

The transit agency has struggled to recruit and retain operators for several years, weakening its ability to deal with major projects.

The L-Taraval train makes a stop. (Daniel Kim/2017 Special to S.F. Examiner)

Angry Muni riders seeking answers as to why the transit system melted down this summer can point to a major factor: a years-long deficit of operators stemming from low wages.

A report presented by the city’s Budget Legislative Analyst on Wednesday found that the SFTMA is running an entire transit system with a staffing deficit that is likely to continue as the pool of applicants shrinks. It ultimately recommends increasing wages to fix systemic Muni issues — a solution that operators who recounted harassment and even assault on the job seconded.

Supervisor Vallie Brown called for the Government Audit and Oversight Committee hearing to dissect the causes of what’s oft-called the summer Muni meltdown that left scores of riders stranded. While the Twin Peaks Tunnel closed for maintenance, buses were pulled from major lines like the 38-Geary — which missed 4,000 hours of regular service — to shuttle passengers that would otherwise board a light rail underground. 

At the same time, operators were pulled away to train for new equipment and upgrades, like fare boxes, and regular training for those who changed assignments during the general signup that occurs every two years. Overtime increased dramatically in August, wearing out the operators available to drive. 

“We had a confluence of events that contributed to the decline in service that, in retrospect, are very clear,” SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said at the hearing. “Certainly what happened in August was a good wake-up call for us.”

An underlying issue in that wake-up call is the transit system’s overall staffing. Muni has experienced an operator deficit since at least September 2016 and needs 411 more drivers as of September. With 524 hires in the same three-year period that saw 498 operators leave, it’s barely avoiding a deeper deficit.

Applicants are down to about 1,000 — more than half its general amount seven years ago. Of the eligible applicants who in 2017 passed the civil service and medical exams, obtain a Class B driving permit, and make it through the eight-week training class, 46 percent declined or did not respond.

The numbers get worse. Of 490 graduates from September 2015 to April 2018, 46 left after the first year and another 12 left after the next year. Much of that is due to the most recent labor contract from 2014 that meant drivers make about $36,000 in their first year, stepping into their full base pay after five years rather than the usual 18 months.

“This is the actual reality and the fact as to why there’s a shortage of operators,” said Roger Marenco, president of Transport Workers Union Local 250-A. “The morale of operators is extremely, extremely low.”

Plus, some of them are driving from as far as Stockton or sleeping in their cars before they even start their shift that often means dealing with angry or mentally unstable people. One driver, Carla Romero, told supervisors with heavy breaths that she has been off the job since she was sexually assaulted for the third time while at work.

For the average passenger who may not hear about the staffing struggles that were behind the summer meltdown, SF Transit Riders Union spokesperson Cat Carter pleaded to communicate better and more timely. She acknowledged that the SFMTA effectively reached out to riders impacted by the tunnel closure “but then everything seemed to fall apart” without real-time updates to explain the chaos.

“We should not have learned about it from the Examiner,” Carter said, referring to its reporting on shortages in the summer. “Maybe you shouldn’t promise service improvements if you can’t actually deliver them.” 

All of this will be taken into account in the next six months, leading up to 2019 contract negotiations. Supervisor Aaron Peskin offered to help with the talks in any way they could while Brown kept the possibility of another hearing open. 

“The things that glare at me are that we’re not paying you enough,” Brown said to drivers. “Now it’s so evident to me how hard our transit operators work and the things that they have to deal with.”

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